Homelessness isn’t just about people living on the streets, it’s about families facing the loss of their homes in difficult times and teenagers with nowhere to go. Paddock’s Jess Cullen is proof that there is light at the end of the tunnel when you ask for help...JOANNE DOUGLAS reports

JESS Cullen is not unlike many other teenagers – the 18-year-old goes to college, has part-time jobs and does her bit for the community.

But her determination follows a period of homelessness and the steps she’s taken make her stand out from the crowd.

Now the Paddock student is challenging stereotypes – not just of young people but about people who need council housing.

As a 16-year-old Jess felt she had nowhere to turn to – she needed to move out of her home for family reasons and spent some time staying in a friend’s spare room, but it was a temporary measure for the former Salendine Nook High School pupil.

After some encouragement, she contacted the Single Homeless Accommodation Project (SHAP) and with help applied for a council house, organised by Kirklees Council and Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing (KNH).

Since then Jess has made massive achievements and has been shortlisted in the ‘most outstanding young person’ category in national awards.

In a year she’s joined the Kirklees Youth Council to give councillors a better understanding of young people’s tenancy issues and she’s in the process of organising summer events for others.

On top of that, Jess took two jobs – at a restaurant and a shoe shop – to pay her own rent and finished her first year’s business studies at Kirklees College, getting distinctions for her work.

Not a bad achievement for someone who just turned 18.

Jess explained: “I moved out when I was 16, I had to really it was the only option, so I got put on the council housing list.

“I knew there were places to go for help but I was nervous about it. I did feel a bit scared, I was worried about what might happen.”

Jess was accepted as being in need of a council house and she was shown two, selecting a terraced property.

She was one of 374 16-17-year-olds who applied and were assessed by Kirklees Council’s Housing Options and Support Service’s Young People’s Team in the 12 months to March.

The council had a duty towards 85 of the homeless minors who were given an Equitable Tenancy Agreement and offered a property and an adult ‘trustee’ is named alongside them on the tenancy agreement.

Jess has just passed her first year’s tenancy without any problems.

She added: “People shouldn’t judge those who need council housing, we’re not all bad. I don’t think it’s fair to stereotype us.

“The first few nights were strange, I was a bit paranoid and kept checking all the locks in the house. But I felt relieved to have somewhere.

“It’s made such a difference to my life. I wouldn’t be where I am now and doing all the things I am without the help and support.”

Jess is now using her experience to help others, she has work placements lined up in a solicitors, the courts and at KNH.

Her proactive involvement with KNH has not only helped her life, but it’s made a difference for others too – she’s worked with the housing organisation helping them develop their young people’s tenancy assessments.

And this summer Jess is helping to organise and stage an celebration event to help other young tenants.

Her work led Susan Greenwood, KNH’s Young People’s Support Manager, to nominate her for the National Federation of ALMOs awards in July.

Asked what advice she would give others in her situation, Jess said: “Don’t give up on yourself, accept whatever help there is and stay in touch with people.

“I was nervous too, but I’ve gained so much confidence, I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.”

Susan is thrilled Jess has made the most of the opportunities to help others, saying: “Hearing Jess say she wouldn’t be where she is today without the support she’s received means so much.

“She deserves to win awards for all she does, and she’s such a positive role model.

“People think of all the negative behaviour but some young people come from unsettled backgrounds and need the chance.”